After her PhD in Electrical Engineering, Susana Sargento became a researcher and university professor in telecommunications. In 2012, she co-founded a vehicular networking company called Veniam, which provides seamless and low-cost vehicle-based internet infrastructure. Susana has also been involved in several national and international projects, such as 4WARD, Euro-NF and DRIVE-IN, and she won the EU Prize for Women Innovators in 2016. With such diverse experience, what advice does she have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
WEgate: Can you tell us more about your company?
Susana Sargento: In our idea of network communications, vehicles and any moving objects make up the communication network. It is a completely disruptive approach that will change networks all over the world.
Initially, the idea started in the research community to allow vehicles to communicate for safety reasons; for example, to report accidents and provide road and traffic information. We leveraged this concept much further to provide ‘overall communication support’, so that in addition to the safety aspects, we are able to provide internet access in the streets and on roadways.
We can also use our network to gather information from sensors in a ‘smart city’ environment, and use it to boost traffic efficiency, communicate in harsh environments –such as harbours, airports, construction sites and large factories – and gather logistics and operations information. We can also use it to build applications for citizens, tourists and commuters in a city, and improve city life and the urban environment.
At this stage, the headcount is approaching 50 people in Veniam, but we expect that to increase a lot during the course of this year.
What or who inspired you to set up your own business?
I could never have imagined the future impact of a project I was working on at CMU-Portugal. We had promised to connect 500 taxis, but the vehicular communication standard (IEEE 802.11p) was delayed and there was no equipment available at a reasonable cost.
I was responsible for the communications equipment, so I had to find a solution to make our vehicles communicate. With help from some great students, we were able to develop the technology ourselves, and integrate it from the start with legacy technologies such as Wi-Fi and cellular. Our first demo back in 2011 showed communication between vehicles, where the front vehicle was sending webcam footage to the back car, allowing it to watch the road and vehicles ahead. In the next step, we tested our ‘fast handover mechanism’ between IEEE 802.11p, Wi-Fi and cellular, which made it possible to build a vehicular network in a city, only half covered with IEEE 802.11p stations.
At that stage, we had great feedback from everyone, from the research to industry, so we decided to build Veniam to move forward with this approach and offer it to the world!
What were the challenges that you faced when you decided to launch your company? Did you have any sort of support from organisations?
We faced many challenges in the beginning, mainly because myself and my colleague João Barros were professors, with no experience in entrepreneurship. But perhaps because of that, I think we made several good decisions that really made a difference later:
Right from the beginning, we partnered up with experienced business people from the US (Robin Chase and Roy Russel);
We immediately applied to business angels and venture capitalists to expand our company;
We submitted applications to business contests inside and outside Portugal and we won them, which gave us the recognition we needed to move forward.
Entrepreneurship is still often considered a man's territory; what advice would you give young women who want to become an entrepreneur?
The good examples are always extremely important as an inspiration, because they allow people to believe in themselves. People often have ideas but they are afraid to put them into practice. Myself, I had the idea of pursuing a company before my colleague reached out to me, but I was hesitant to take the first step.
If you are a woman and you have an idea that could be a winner, don't be afraid to take a chance. If your idea is new and there is a business model for it, just think big! Try to understand what you need to make your idea a reality and who can really help you in this journey, since people are key when starting up a business. People with good contacts that can help with funding and getting first customers are important, but you also need to find people with the same vision and inspiration to work with you; people who can help grow your start-up with you.
What is your favourite part of your job?
When I am asked about the next step, I think about the next evolutions and innovations that make sense to improve the normal user’s life. Before starting the business, I was committed to research; now I can only think about research if I can see a deployment path with testing by real users.
This is what I love about my job: the research and exploration of new ideas!
I don't usually have a favourite motto or quote, but I always try to follow one principle: if I am good and give my best in everything I do, only great things can follow. And this has been true in my life. I don't work with a special mission of achieving some objective, but the objectives come as the result of working with passion in everything I do.